Towards Engaged Migration Research: Unpacking Positionality, Inequalities and Access

“We are Black, Indian, Mestiza, Sudaka, racialised flesh. We reject your PDFs and your disembodied lectures. We deny every trend of being and return to listening to each other, looking each other in the eye, telling each other stories, and building from lived experience.” 

Manifiesto AFROntera – Terremoto (n.d.)


In May 2024, we will release a Special Issue, "Towards Engaged Migration Research: Unpacking Positionality, Inequalities and Access.” This issue aims to explore engaged migration research in-depth, including its practice and politics. Our approach focuses on identifying the interconnected yet distinct ethical concerns of positionality, inequalities, and access, which involve making difficult choices when theorizing, applying methodologies, and co-producing knowledge on migration. As researchers and practitioners from various fields who work with people on the move (POM), we collaborate on this Special Issue to share our insights with scholars, policymakers, and other stakeholders. We believe that these reflections are vital in academia and beyond, as they provide a means to challenge dominant regimes of im/mobility characterised by neo-colonial bordering dynamics.

In this endeavour, we have collected thirteen blog pieces from PhD migration scholars and practitioners in law, sociology, politics, human geography, development, architecture, education, communication, language, social medicine, and community health. As researcher-practitioners, we take a political position that aims to redress existing inequalities between citizens and non-citizens and to expose and mitigate gender, race, and class power imbalances in migration research. We introduce the Special Issue through three main recommendations to further explore positionality, inequalities, and access as critical elements of engaged research: 1) adopting an interdisciplinary approach, 2) connecting positionality and reflexivity for critical perspectives, and 3) using participatory methods to challenge migration epistemologies from below.

Session picture. Piece

Session picture, from the piece "Engaged debates and migration research: Convening a Migration Discussion Group" by Gianna Eckert and Lauren Brown

First, in their pieces, Berfin Nur Osso, Gianna Eckert, and Lauren Brown argue that an inter/ transdisciplinary approach is necessary to facilitate an ongoing critical dialogue between different perspectives and knowledges. Berfin supplements legal analysis with visual arts to analyse and compare the 'top-down' governmental and corporate shaping of the 'migrant condition' and the 'bottom-up' cultural, social, and political practices that help POM resist. The outcome is a novel transdisciplinary approach that aims to complement the dialectic between migration policies and their negative impact on migrants. Elsewhere, Gianna and Lauren organise a migration discussion group to promote collective reflection, intellectual exploration, and cross-disciplinary encounters within and beyond universities to unpack our own disciplinary prejudices and individual prisms through which we view migration phenomena.

Second, five contributions explore how to place positionality at the core of our research. Through reflective accounts, we underline how positionality shapes – and can shift – during fieldwork, how it functions as a critical element unveiling power balances and, ultimately, brings awareness of inequalities to our insights. This is the main topic of the blogs written by Pamela Hartley Pinto, Connie Hodgkinson Lahiff and Lauren, Istikhar Ali, Rohini Mitra, and Khaoula Stiti. To introduce this theme, Pamela shares six ‘fundamental principles’ to implement as researchers and practitioners aimed at placing POM's knowledges and personal expertise at the core of the research. This aims to amplify the voices of POM not just as beneficiaries but also as leaders in the field. Then, Connie and Lauren reflect on how their subjectivity as researchers and their professional identity as legal and educational practitioners are socially constructed, leading to multiple in/out positionalities throughout time and space. Meanwhile, Ishtikar and Rohini each talk about their ethnographic fieldwork and volunteer work in India by going beyond the outsider/insider divides. They recall gender, religious, and cultural identities as an ‘ethnographic toolkit’ that shaped their relationships with respondents and interlocutors, their understanding of their positionality, and the outcomes of their research. Lastly, Khaoula proposes a manifesto for putting value on being a migrant in academia and dismantling shame in neoliberal universities. She calls for acknowledging and embracing shared experiences among migrant scholars to unite, share their stories openly, and address the discrimination they endure within the academic discourse of migration studies.

Fieldwork picture from

Fieldwork picture from "Ethnographic Tool(kit)s in Practice: Navigating Fieldwork with Refugee Populations in India" by Rohini Mitra

Third, we showcase the potential of participatory methods to challenge established knowledge about migration and borders while empowering and engaging POM to co-create knowledge about the migratory phenomena as experts. Here, we feature six cases of participatory methods used in different contexts. Irene Praga examines the advantages and challenges of using collaborative writing in independent transnational journalism. Jami Abramson explores the photo essay as a participatory visual method to share ideas of "home" among diasporic youth in Wales. Irene Gutiérrez shares insights about using participatory filmmaking with people living in the borderlands of Ireland, between Morocco and Spain, and Turkey and Syria. Stephen Murphy offers critical reflections on methodological individualism based on his six-month ethnographic fieldwork in Uganda by privileging local knowledge through participatory research. Then, Miriam Adelia Ocadiz invites us to ask ourselves what it means to be an engaged scholar in migration research through an impressionist album of images of some of the most caring moments of her five-year PhD journey. She ends her piece with the Manifiesto AFROntera – Terremoto that opens this editorial, which perfectly links with the final piece in our Special Issue: Imen El Amouri’s call to action towards a compassionate approach to migration studies. In this powerful piece, Imen argues that migration scholars must place the moral imperative to drive societal change over the current neoliberal academic imperatives of publishing, a tension particularly pronounced in our field. 

A transect walk with a group of local youth through their garden in Bujagali, a village in Jinja, Uganda, from the piece

A transect walk with a group of local youth through their garden in Bujagali, a village in Jinja, Uganda, from the piece "Beyond Methodological Individualism: Understanding Youth Aspirations by Bridging Positionality and Local Knowledge in Participatory Research" by Stephen Agahi-Murphy

In conclusion, we suggest that attempting engaged migration research by questioning positionality, inequalities, and access is key to moving towards a compassionate academic practice – sentipensando y haciendo con personas migrantes. Considering critically the ethical dilemmas of positionality, inequalities, and access throughout the research journey helps to overcome a sense of producing knowledge solely for academia: we want to look beyond the Ivory Tower. As actors on the ground who have chosen to research migration to advocate for freedom of movement as a universal human right, we hope that these reflections can contribute to the efforts of activist migration scholars in mitigating potentially negative effects of our endeavours, eschewing reductionist or extractivist scholarship in favour of co-production. May the personal reflections in this Special Issue provoke and inspire collaboration under the universal principle of "I take, I give", and may each of the contributions serve as a starting point to contest normative debates and terminologies in migration studies.

Our special issue will be available for download here in May. Stay tuned for updates!

PhD Network

The IMISCOE PhD Network aims to strengthen research and network opportunities for doctoral researchers in the field of migration. The Network has several dedicated working groups, each with active members who plan and carry out activities relevant for PhD migration scholars.

PhD Network

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